Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. I also had almost zero interest in his new drama The Fablemans, inspired by his own upbringing.
I am generally antagonistic to movies about Hollywood, filmmaking, or filmmakers–of all the fascinating subjects in the history of the world, making a movie about movies would fall pretty low on the list–so color me surprised when I got to the end credits and realized I liked the damn thing. Like really liked it.
Lesson learned: don’t underestimate Steven Fucking Spielberg.
Gabrielle LaBelle stars as Sammy Fableman, a teenager who discovers that not only does he love to make movies but that he’s actually pretty damn good at it. His parents, played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, are largely supportive of his pursuits, but their troubled relationship makes for a less than ideal childhood.
Much has been made about the divisive performances of Williams and Dano, but it’s LaBelle who not only stands above the rest but carries the film on his shoulders. His earnestness seeps through every moment; his performance feels less like acting than it does us watching a young Stevy Spielberg honing his craft. Williams and Dano meanwhile are both fine but are clearly playing parts; their performances seem overly chiseled to create something specific.
The Fablemans suffers from some of what has plagued late-stage Spielberg for the last decade or more. Some scenes feel meticulously crafted where they lose their groundedness. Others are so focused on eliciting a certain emotion that they come off as cheesy. Some characters, like Williams’ and Dano’s, appear artificial at times.
But Spielberg wears his heart on his sleeve, and The Fablemans understandably is a more personal film. As a result, it’s his best, or at least his most sincere, movie in years (his last great live-action film was 2005’s Munich). It feels stripped of some of what has limited Spielberg in recent years, while still showcasing his obvious talent.
On a side note, the movie has the year’s best final shot of any film.
The Fablemans may not rank among Spielberg’s best movies, but it is a legitimately good movie that, yes, is about a filmmaker and filmmaking, but is also about growing up and achieving your role in this world. Recommended.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.